By Amir Nasr
October 22, 2015 at 5:18 pm ET
Depending on which commissioner you ask, the Federal Communications Commission either took a big step toward global mobile 5G Thursday or it merely continued to tread water in an area nobody really understands.
With partial dissents from two Republicans, the FCC approved proposed rules to make high-frequency airwaves available for mobile wireless use. Unlocking these airwaves is viewed as critical in the development a mobile 5G network and the Internet of Things.
“We are taking a serious leap that creates a competitive opportunity for this nation to be a leader in the forthcoming 5G world,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said at the commission’s monthly meeting.
The swath of airwaves, technically defined as “above 24 GHz,” was previously thought to be unusable for mobile wireless. The wavelengths and the signal losses were thought to be too unstable. Researchers have found ways to circumvent these problems, but these techniques are still in development. Even so, the FCC wants to have rules in place now so that when the engineers are ready to launch the new 5G network, they can.
Commissioner Ajit Pai, one of two Republicans on the commission, was a skeptical of the agency’s care in the matter. “I don’t believe the commission is acting aggressively enough today to ensure the United States becomes the leader in 5G,” Pai said. “In particular, the commission is making decisions here that may needlessly delay the development of 5G technology tomorrow.”
Pai called for more substance in the rule. He compared the FCC’s deliberations on the swath of airwaves to a scene from HBO comedy series, “Veep.” He played a clip of a scene in which the main character improvises a speech of nonsensical clichés after her teleprompter malfunctions and only displays “FUTURE WHATEVER.”
“When it comes to our 5G future, however, ‘Whatever’ isn’t good enough,” Pai said.
However, Pai added that he is pleased that the proposal, weak as he sees it, can allow the agency to start being more specific about 5G development.
Pai and fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly both said they wished the commission had included even more bands of airwaves in the proposal. “These [24 GHz frequencies are likely just the tip of the iceberg of frequencies needed to make the next generation of services a reality,” O’Rielly said.
O’Rielly said he decided to approve the proposal in part because he appreciated Wheeler’s efforts to move it forward and because Wheeler had promised to reevaluate it after the World Radiocommunication Conference, which starts in Geneva Nov. 2.
The International Telecommuniction Union holds the World Radiocommunication Conference every three to four years. The FCC wants to use this year’s forum to launch its efforts in becoming a worldwide leader in 5G. That’s why Wheeler thought it was so important for the commission to approve the proposal this month.
“Continued U.S. leadership requires international coordination, so we are walking into Geneva in a couple of few weeks with what we are doing here today,” Wheeler said. “It requires harmonization at least inside of our hemisphere, and then hopefully with the rest of the world.”
“Efforts to develop the next generation of wireless technology are already underway around the world,” echoed Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “The race to 5G is on. With the race on, today’s rulemaking gets us out of the gate.”
Wheeler said the U.S. already has a tried and tested formula that worked with 4G. “Throughout the world, 4G networks run on American infrastructure, software. And 4G devices run on American operating systems,” he said. “We need to follow that kind of game plan in the 5G world.”
“I think we’re far beyond, ‘whatever,’” Wheeler said.
Amir Nasr previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering tech.